Media reform beyond reach

The Australian | Darren Davidson and Jake Mitchell | 17 November 2015

The Turnbull government is pushing ahead with a broader media reform program than initially expected by moving to scrap cross-media ownership laws that limit deals between print, radio and TV companies.

A historic package is expected to not only seek to axe the population reach rule, but also to remove the "two-out-of-three" cap imposed in the 1980s before the arrival of the internet.

Abolishing the reach rule would enable metropolitan and regional television networks to merge through deals such as the mooted $2.2 billion tie-up between free-to-air network Nine and radio and TV group Southern Cross Austereo.

A cabinet recommendation or policy announcement is expected in the parliamentary sitting week of November 23 in what would represent a move likely to appeal to a greater number of media players than reform restricted to the reach rule.

It remains unclear if the reform package will include an attempt to trim the anti-siphoning regimen, although new legislation is not required to alter a long list of sports events and matches ring-fenced for the freeto-air networks.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield would need the support of six out of eight crossbenchers if the government cannot convince Labor and the Greens to support the package.

Three crossbenchers including Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm and Dio Wang have indicated they will vote in favour of the reforms That means Senator Fifield will need to win three votes from a group made up of Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, Nick Xenophon and John Madigan. There is a rising belief that senators Muir and Lazarus are in favour of a package that recognises the internet has made the current rules obsolete.

A spokeswoman for Senator Fifield declined to comment.

A move to scrap the reach rule while retaining other laws would be controversial, leaving the government open to accusations of further distorting an uneven regulatory landscape.

Media companies have warned it would further shackle local incumbents competing with digital giants like Facebook and Google, which operate without the same heavy regulatory burden. It comes after Ten Network chairman David Gordon joined a long list of media operators arguing in favour of a holistic package of changes.

In the broadcaster's annual report, published yesterday, Mr Gordon calls for the removal of all media ownership and control laws, warning against "piecemeal tinkering".

"We are hopeful that the coming year finally sees the wholesale removal of these rules and not a piecemeal tinkering that will of itself only create a new set of distortions and continue to impede our competitiveness," he said.

Mr Gordon said the current regulations "limit and constrain Australian free-to-air networks" while new internet-based TV services such as Netflix and giants Google and Facebook operate more freely.

"Notwithstanding the pleasing results in 2015 and the completion of our strategic review, Ten Network continues to operate in a dynamic and changing environment. The combination of new technologies and new ways to consume media is changing viewing habits and presents new challenges," Mr Gordon said.

View the article on The Australian.